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The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.



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April 2008

April 29, 2008

UNCTAD XII is Over. . .More Work Ahead

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch and Anne Laure Constantin were in Accra, Ghana for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) XII meeting through April 24. They blogged periodically on events in Accra.

I'm now in Geneva, back from Accra and UNCTAD XII. I've not yet recovered from an intensive week of civil society activities, meeting with officials and enjoying the sun and heat of the West African capital. But my head full of new ideas for how to advance our work, in collaboration with other individuals and institutions, as a contribution to make trade work for development.

I find that what’s most exciting about these international conferences is the number of people you meet and the opportunity to exchange perspectives. These discussions enrich our work back home. Over the course of the week, we co-sponsored or attended events on: commodities, biofuels, the future of the WTO, African women and food sovereignty, the food crisis and free trade agreements. All of them were informed by very different perspectives, from civil society, business, governments, etc. The fact that the conference took place in Africa gave us an opportunity to understand better the realities in that region in relation to agriculture and trade.

To be frank, the outcome of the conference in itself was a disappointment. As Alexandra highlighted in her earlier blog, there has been no genuine attempt by the UN to free itself from the neoliberal agenda for development and growth. The final Accra Declaration sadly lacks any kind of ambition. Some of the language is contradictory, reflecting the hard compromises that Member States had to strike to finally come up with a text. UNCTAD’s role in enhancing intergovernmental dialogue on the links – and possible contradictions - between globalization, development and poverty alleviation, is being severely constrained. While developing countries had ambitious proposals in these areas, the outcome was less space for these discussions to take place within UNCTAD.

The dramatic food crisis now spreading around the world was part of every single conversation in the Conference Center. We are satisfied that there seems to be more focus on the need to support agriculture in developing countries in order to increase food supplies. However, we are very concerned that there is no fundamental reconsideration of how to most effectively support agriculture development: how can governments believe that more of the same will solve the crisis?

If the UN is not able to offer bold proposals for how to address the crisis, then who is?

In the end, this conference was only one step on our way. In the months ahead, IATP will keep advocating in favor of a reform of international agriculture trade rules, so as to address the new challenges posed by climate change, rising oil prices, speculation in financial markets and corporate power in agriculture. Stay posted!

Anne-Laure Constantin

April 28, 2008

Will the International Assessment of Agriculture Bring a New Era?

On April 12, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) reports on agriculture were approved by 57 governments meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa. The approval capped a six year-long process of negotiating terms of reference for the project, selecting more than 400 authors, and three full rounds of writing, editing and rewriting in response to thousands of comments from around the world. Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have not signed on to the reports, despite many changes to the “Summary for Decision-Makers” and the “Synthetic Reports” on cross-cutting themes that were made to gain their support.

I went to two of the four author/reviewer meetings, was a Lead Author for the “policy options” chapter of the Global Report and reviewed the chapter on Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology (AKST) investment. 

Here are some of the key findings:

  • The way the world grows its food must radically change to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is going to cope with a growing population and climate change.
  • A new system must focus on the needs of small farms in diverse ecosystems.
  • The industrial agriculture model focused almost exclusively on production has come at a high environmental cost.
  • The patenting of genetically engineered crops has concentrated ownership of resources, driving up costs and undermining local farming practices.
  • Women, who make up a large proportion of farmers in developing countries, continue to struggle with low income, limited access to education, credit and land, and deteriorating work conditions.

The paper concluded that a new agriculture system should focus on: fighting poverty and improving rural livelihoods; enhancing food security, using natural resources in a sustainable way, improving human health and greater equity in agriculture.

Much of the criticism about the IAASTD report comes from a few governments and the agricultural biotechnology industry, which had supported the creation of the IAASTD on the understanding that it would promote the industry and trade liberalization as primary vehicles for AKST investment and research. Industry representatives withdrew from the IAASTD when they couldn’t control its content in the writing and comment process to which they had agreed. I suspect that much of the criticism of the report as “anti-science” comes from those who have not read the whole report or from those whose notion of ASKT encompasses a very narrow range of science. For example, in contrast to the conventional call for focusing public investment in yield-increasing technologies, the IAASTD assesses the policy options and investments for post-harvest technologies to ensure that existing production does not spoil. Sometimes “low tech” solutions obviate the need for costly “high tech” science.

Civil Society Organizations issued an April 12th statement in Johannesburg, entitled “A new era of agriculture begins today.” (More comments and articles on the assessment can be found here). Whether or not the optimism of this title is justified will depend on whether and how governments and CSOs interpret and implement the findings of the report. What cannot be denied is that a massive literature review supports the IAASTD conclusion that the 20th century focus on increasing agricultural production, while “externalizing” the social and environment costs of that production, is unsustainable.

The IAASTD literature review is not just “scientific,” in the natural science and laboratory sense of the term, though it includes literature from agronomy, climate science, ecology, epidemiology, hydrology, molecular biology, plant virology, soil science, veterinary science etc. The review includes the economic, legal, political science, sociological and trade policy literature that helps decision-makers decide which ASKT policies to adopt and which investments to make. To dismiss the IAASTD because it concerns policy options and investments – and is not an AKST risk assessment on narrow questions of safety – is to misunderstand the assessment mandate given to the IAASTD authors: assess which AKST policies and investments can contribute to sustainable development and other IAASTD objectives.

If the misunderstanding is genuine, it can be corrected through the kind of discussion employed in the IAASTD comment process. If the misunderstanding is willful, then the terms of battle are set between a peculiar notion of “science” and the range of AKST policy and investment options in the IAASTD.

Steve Suppan

April 24, 2008

M. Lamy Out of Step on Food Prices

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch and Anne Laure Constantin are in Accra, Ghana for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) XII meeting through April 24. They will be blogging periodically on events in Accra.

Skyrocketing food prices feature high on UNCTAD XII’s agenda. WTO Director General Pascal Lamy addressed this topic to civil society representatives here on April 21. His take on the current food crisis and the role of the WTO was a disappointment to many. According to Lamy, the change in eating habits in developing countries is the main, long-standing factor leading to the increase in prices.

The day before, U.N Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had highlighted more comprehensively the mix of factors leading to price increases, including rising oil prices, climate-related production shortfalls, global economic growth, financial speculation, the shift to biofuels production and the depreciation of the U.S. dollar. For more details on some of these factors, see our recent paper on global agriculture prices and development.

M. Lamy’s argument missed the point. Take just one of the factors M. Ban mentioned: speculation. More and more money is going into financial investment in agriculture commodities. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded that this has been made possible by the deregulation of international agriculture markets. As a result, the volatility of commodity prices is growing. Yesterday, in a debate on “the changing face of commodities in the 21st century,” a Tunisian representative estimated that speculation was responsible for a third of the price of food at the moment.

But no question: M. Lamy was not prepared to engage in a serious reconsideration of global trade deregulation. Hence the “disillusion” expressed by an African civil society leader towards the end of the meeting.

Anne-Laure Constantin

April 21, 2008

Africa, Post-Colonialism and the Role of the UN

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch and Anne Laure Constantin are in Accra, Ghana for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) XII meeting through April 24. They will be blogging periodically on events in Accra.

The official UNCTAD XII meeting began yesterday with an opening plenary including speeches from the presidents of Brazil (Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva), Ghana (John Agyekum Kufuor) and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Supachai Panitchpakdi, spoke to the G77 earlier in the day and also to civil society groups the day prior. This meeting takes place at a critical time for Africa, which is drowning in unfilled promises for development - worsened by skyrocketing food and oil prices, climate change and unfair terms of trade and investment.

Unctad_signYet again, government leaders acknowledge that the poor are being left behind in the globalization model. They are urging countries to work together to deal with the development crisis. However, their solutions are neither new nor will they curb the crisis today. They propose a "second generation of globalization" which would include: increased aid to meet the Millenium Development Goal targets; increased trade (including more South/South free trade agreements); increased "aid for trade" to further productive capacity; increased biofuels investment; and a green revolution in Africa. More of the same and then some….It is sad to see the UN so overtaken by the neoliberal agenda for development and growth. The reduced role of the UN is apparent. The implications for Africa are huge.

In relation to the food crisis, the UN seems to understand all of the problems associated with deregulated markets, financial speculation and the lowest grain reserves in history. Yet, surprisingly, UN officials caution against managing food supplies (i.e. price caps on certain goods and export/import taxes, and establishing grain reserves). Rather, they urge countries to wait it out and let the market regulate itself.  This policy is condemning people to starve at a time when they must be served by their governments and international institutions.

Ministers and other high-level officials from 49 of the least developed countries (LDCs) released a statement on April 19, calling for a "new deal" to tackle the international crisis caused by high food prices. They urge UNCTAD to support additional aid for agricultural infrastructure and domestic production, market access to developed countries and the integration of LDCs into the world economy. Immediate regulation at both the domestic and international levels is needed in order to achieve these objectives.

UNCTAD has written on the fact that foreign direct investment (FDI) has grown in Africa. What UNCTAD reports, however, is that FDI flows have not actually led to an increase in Africa’s share in global FDI. This is because 70 percent of investment agreements concluded by African countries have been with other countries in Europe. Much of the future investment will continue to be extractive (oil, gas and minerals). The majority of this investment has been in primary and services sectors and is due to the exploitation of African’s natural resources and privatization schemes.

Within Africa itself, only a few resource rich countries have benefited from FDI. These include Angola, South Africa and Nigeria. In spite of the fact that current foreign direct investment hasn’t led to GDP growth in most countries, UNCTAD is calling for regional Free Trade Agreements and more Bilateral Investment Treaties as the cure for the region.

It is clear that the UN’s role has been greatly reduced and co-opted by the trade agenda. Our challenge moving forward in this global economy is strengthening the UN and our commitment to one another and the environment. Africa is in terrible trouble in spite of its rich history, culture and vibrant spirit. We cannot stand back while our friends and colleagues suffer from this ongoing colonial paradigm.

Alexandra Spieldoch

April 19, 2008

Mining Highlighted at International Civil Society Forum at UNCTAD XII

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch and Anne Laure Constantin are in Accra, Ghana for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) XII meeting through April 24. They will be blogging periodically on events in Accra.

Yao Graham and his colleagues at Third World Network Africa are working hard to strengthen democracy in Africa. They believe greater democracy will help put the continent on the road to development.

In his opening speech to the international Civil Society Forum in Accra this week, Yao pointed to the many countries where democracy is at risk in Africa (Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Darfur…), but he also emphasized that, generally, the political space has opened up. Building stronger civil society movements in West Africa will ultimately strengthen the democratic processes nationally and regionally.

Civil society in West Africa is particularly concerned with the impacts of mining on rural communities. At a time when high commodity prices are portrayed internationally as good news for those who export mineral products, the reality in the region is that mining is not benefiting people: on the contrary, it is threatening livelihoods, those of workers in the sector, but also those of farmers because of the competition for land, water pollution and deforestation. While African countries can claim high growth rates, “growth without redistribution, without development and equity, is meaningless,” said Graham. Corporate control over natural resources in Africa was strongly denounced and participants recommended that people's movements should be strengthened in order to hold governments accountable. Otherwise, they fear that the new commodities boom will only lead to “a new scramble for Africa."

Anne-Laure Constantin

April 18, 2008

UNCTAD XII, African Women and Food Sovereignty

IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch and Anne Laure Constantin are in Accra, Ghana for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) XII meeting through April 24. They will be blogging periodically on events in Accra.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, women represent 80 percent of rural food production throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In Ghana, the number is between 70-80 percent. However, women’s voices are largely absent from the global food and agriculture debates.

Yesterday in Accra, one of the first questions at a forum we co-hosted on women and food sovereignty  was: why wasn’t the voice of a Ghana woman farmer in the opening plenary of the Civil Society Forum preceeding UNCTAD XII?

We heard from a number of women agriculture leaders at the forum, which was co-hosted by Acord International, Action Aid International, Food Security and Policy Action Network (FoodSPAN), International Gender and Trade Network, Third World Network-Africa and Gender and Economic Reforms in Africa. 

In particular, we heard the testimonies of two women farmers on the role of women in agriculture in their part of the world:

Mme Beatrice Donkor - FoodSPAN: In the northern region of Africa, women are farming grains. They are also the majority producers of shea butter, livestock, small poultry and they process food. They have replaced men as the dominant force in agricultural production. Yet, management and decision-making processes continue to be male-dominated. 

Lydia_sasuMme Lydia Sasu (photo left) – ROPPA (Network of Farmers’ and Agricultural Producers’ Organizations of West Africa) and International Federation of Agriculture Producers: In the South, women are planters of maize and plantains. They are also fish processors. Women handle the smoking, sorting and drying of fish. They are washing, peeling, grating, and pressing cassava into dough. They are also providing food for their families and cleaning.

We learned that structural adjustment policies and trade liberalization have created some disturbing changes in food systems in both the North and the South.

1.       The eating habits of Ghana communities are changing. For example, the younger generation is now eating rice, which has flooded the Ghana market since trade liberalization, instead of other traditional food items such as cassava and fufu.

2.       Farmers, majority women, that are unable to make a living are migrating out of rural areas.

3.       The cost of farm inputs is higher than the income that farmers receive.

4.       Rural networks are struggling to gain access to markets. 

5.       High food prices are increasing hunger in rural communities.

6.       Water is drying up in rural areas so women are traveling farther to collect water.

7.       Women lack land rights, technology, credit, infrastructure and resources.

8.       Women farmers and producers are not present in policy-making decisions nor are their concerns central in food sovereignty debates.

Participants at the event stressed the need to link agendas so that agriculture and development groups adopt gender into their analysis and action, and the global women’s movement commits to alternatives in food and agriculture in a more substantive way. 

In light of the global food crisis today, linked to high commodity prices, climate change, biofuels and financial speculation, it's clear that deregulating agriculture has been a mistake. And the message here is that we do not have any time to waste in correcting the problem. Controls are needed to manage our food system. In order to do this, support for human rights, including women’s rights, and reform of global governance overall are urgently needed.

Alexandra Spieldoch

High Prices and Rural Development

In this time of high agriculture prices, we know someone is making a lot of money. On the buying side of the farm chain, Cargill reports third quarter net earnings of over $1 billion this week, a 69 percent increase from last year. On the input side, Monsanto announced record earnings earlier this month, also over $1 billion for its second quarter.

In theory, higher global prices should represent an important opportunity for farmers and rural communities in developing countries. But according to a new report released today by IATP's Anne Laure Constantin, many of the benefits of high prices are not finding their way to farmers due to higher production costs and the dismantling of important agriculture policy tools (thanks to World Bank, IMF and WTO policies) designed to help ramp up production and manage supply to address price volatility.

On Sunday, trade ministers from around the world will gather in Accra, Ghana for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The meeting represents an important opportunity to address the current failings in agriculture markets. You can follow the latest happenings at the UNCTAD XII meeting at IATP's UNCTAD web page.

Here is IATP's press release from today:

Can High Agriculture Prices Spur Development?

UNCTAD Meeting an Opportunity to Address Agriculture Markets, New Report

Minneapolis/Accra – Trade ministers gathering in Accra, Ghana for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) should take steps to support agriculture and manage supplies to address price volatility, according to a new paper by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

“A Time of High Prices: An Opportunity for the Rural Poor?” written by IATP’s Trade Information Project Officer Anne Laure Constantin, is being released in Accra today, and is available at www.iatp.org.

The paper finds that governments have been limited in their ability to help farmers take advantage of higher prices – due to free trade economics pushed by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. Trade liberalization has encouraged the dismantling of agriculture programs in many developing countries, making it difficult to ramp up production and manage supplies to stabilize prices.

“The push to deregulate national and international agriculture markets needs to be reassessed,” said Constantin. “UNCTAD has historically been at the intersection of commodities and development. They could play a constructive role in addressing unfair markets and stabilizing prices.”

The paper found that while agriculture prices are rising almost across the board, farmers in poor countries aren’t benefitting as much as they could. Instead, many of them suffer from the spike in food prices. Skyrocketing energy and input (fertilizer and seed) costs are increasing the cost of production. Gains from export earnings are being swallowed up by the exporting company and profits have not found their way back to farmers.

The paper called for:

·         UNCTAD XII to reassess the need to regulate agriculture markets. High prices can be a tool for development and poverty alleviation, but they will not achieve these aims if left to highly volatile and concentrated global markets;

·         Greater support for the agriculture sector, particularly in developing countries;

·         Coordinated action to manage agriculture supply to address price volatility;

·         Regulation of the food value chain to address the market power of transnational corporations and deliver on a fair distribution of benefits from producers to consumers;

·         Promotion of environmentally sustainable methods of production including assistance adapting agriculture to climate change;

·         Bioenergy policies that don’t threaten food security and adapt to local conditions and needs.

Constantin and IATP’s Director of Trade and Global Governance, Alexandra Spieldoch, are in Accra at a civil society forum from April 17-19, and then monitoring the UNCTAD meeting from April 20-24. You can find updates on all that is happening at the UNCTAD XII Ministerial at: http://www.iatp.org/unctadxii/

Ben Lilliston

April 17, 2008

Salmonella, the FDA and Honduran Melon Exports

IATP Senior Fellow Mark Muller is working in a volunteer program in Honduras through July. He is blogging periodically on his experiences there.

If people in southern Honduras were looking for an issue to focus an overall, slow-simmering resentment of the United States, the recent ban on Honduran melon imports certainly has provided the spark. As the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna stated recently (in Spanish), “The fruit of discontent is no longer the apple…it is now the melon.” Fifty nine people in U.S. and Canada were sickened by salmonella, and the outbreak was linked to melons imported from Honduras, although the origin of the salmonella is in dispute. Much to the chagrin of the Honduran government, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has blocked Honduran melon imports.

My first impression of the issue – surely formed through spending most of my life as a U.S. food consumer – was thankfulness that the FDA acted to protect the integrity of the U.S. food system. At least 59 people have fallen ill to a potentially serious bacterium; maintaining a safe and healthy food system should take precedent over trade relations or corporate profits. But I am probably the only person in southern Honduras who feels that way. Everyone I have talked to, whether they have financial interest in melon production or not, feels that the U.S. government is fabricating the situation in order to protect U.S. domestic fruit production, or perhaps to provide leverage in future trade negotiations.

Agropecuaria Montelibano, the exporter that allegedly shipped salmonella-tainted melons, claims that the ban has cost them $8 million and has put 5,000 jobs at risk. The potential loss of this employment would be devastating for small, rural communities here in southern Honduras, many of which are practically surrounded by melon fields.

Melon_mural_jpeg (At left is a mural in the center of town in Choluteca, paying homage to the region´s watermelon and cantaloupe production.)

I don’t know enough about the situation yet to have a position in this debate. But this is clearly another example of a food system built without resiliency. The salmonella outbreak, wherever it occured, seems to have no geographic rhyme or reason, infecting people in 16 states and Canada. This region of Honduras has become completely dependent on exporting melons, sugar and shrimp, and few jobs exist in many communities outside of these industries. While top government officials and corporate executives will drive this issue, it will be a few unlucky U.S. and Canadian consumers – and thousands of very poor Honduran laborers – that will be most hurt.

Mark Muller

So Thirsty…Throat is Parched…Need Water….

IATP Senior Fellow Mark Muller is working in a volunteer program in Honduras through July. He is blogging periodically on his experiences there.

Ok, perhaps I am being a little melodramatic. We have plenty of purified water to drink. But we are now in day four of not having water in our taps and it’s all that I can think about.

Our water tends to go out once or twice a week, usually for a day or less. We have three pilas in the house, which provide about two day’s worth of water to bathe, wash dishes, wash clothes, and flush toilets. So day one tends to go by without much thought of conservation – we live like we normally do, with the expectation that it will come back on soon. Day two forces us to change some habits, like putting off the washing of clothes.

Day three puts some stress on relationships. Was it important to wash your hair today? Did you really have to use that water to flush the toilet?

And now we are in day four. I volunteered not to bathe today (although hygiene has never been one of my strengths). I washed the breakfast dishes in a calculated manner, starting with the glasses and progressing toward the dirtier silverware and bowls. I then took the dishwater and used it to water my prized watermelon plants.

I’m constantly pouring myself glasses of water – just the concept of water shortages makes the body crave more. You may need a glass after reading this post.

What’s my point in writing this? When living in the States, I’m sure that I used about the daily average of 70 gallons per person. We are now getting by with about three gallons per person per day, and I’ve discovered many creative ways of reusing water. Necessity is certainly the mother of invention, and perhaps the increasing number of water shortages around the globe, coupled with the increasing cost of obtaining water, will result in some more creative thinking about water conservation and use. A recent post by my colleague Shiney Varghese pointed out some of the challenges the U.S. is starting to face with water. My mind has certainly become focused on the topic.

Mark Muller

April 16, 2008

Corporate Spying and GE Crops

Nine years ago, IATP was part of new coalition called GE Food Alert. The coalition included the Center for Food Safety, Organic Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth, U.S. PIRG, and the National Environmental Trust. We were taking on the biotech industry, demanding tougher pre-market testing for environmental and health risks before new genetically engineered foods entered the market, as well as labeling for consumers. To illustrate how little monitoring was going on with new GE crops, we tested Taco Bell taco shells and found that they contained a genetically engineered corn, known as StarLink, that had not been approved for human consumption because of allergy concerns.

The stakes were extremely high. Genetically engineered corn and soybeans were being grown throughout the Midwest, but there was little to no segregation going on – GE and non-GE crops were mixed together, and still are for the most part. Major food companies like Kraft were stuck using GE crops, whether they liked it or not. Government agencies like the USDA and EPA were doing very little monitoring in the fields – and still aren’t. In many ways, the entire agriculture and food industry along with government agencies were drawn into defending GE crops by their premature introduction into the marketplace.

So, there were some powerful forces challenging our campaign. We knew that. But a remarkable article by Jim Ridgeway in the new Mother Jones paints a bigger, and more alarming, picture of what we were up against. The article outlines how former cops and secret service agents worked at a private security firm that spied on GE Food Alert as well as Greenpeace, including searching through garbage, attempting to plant undercover operatives, collecting phone records, and penetrating confidential meetings. The firm had many clients, including public relations firms who worked for the major food and biotech companies.

For more details, you can listen to this interview with Ridgeway on Democracy Now and read Greenpeace's response to the story.

The article is a disturbing look at corporate espionage and the enormous stakes at play over GE foods. We still know very little about the long-term environmental effects of planting GE crops or the long-term health effects of eating them. The biotech industry has made a lot of money on corn, soybeans and cotton (mostly used as animal feed or ingredients in processed food) – but has struggled to introduce new GE crops, including wheat, that are more directly eaten.

Ridgeway’s article is important as we move forward. It once again begs the same simple questions we've been asking all along: why is the industry so scared of comprehensive pre-market testing and basic food labeling of genetically engineered food?

Ben Lilliston

April 14, 2008

Trade Rules and Biofuels

The global biofuel market has grown so quickly that international trade and investment rules aren’t prepared to handle the multiple challenges arising from this new sector. As an example, the World Trade Organization treats ethanol and biodiesel very differently under its rules. At the same time, the clearing of land to meet the growing need for biofuel feedstocks is causing a host of environmental problems, including threats to water and biodiversity (a topic IATP will tackle in an upcoming report). 

In a new paper published with our friends at the International Institute for Environment and Development,  IATP’s Sophia Murphy outlines how global rules will shape the biofuel market and how new rules are needed to support environmental sustainability, rural development and human rights. Below is our press release on the paper from today:

Global Trade Rules to Shape Biofuel Market

Minneapolis – The long-term sustainability of the fast-moving global biofuel market will depend on changes to international trade and investment rules that govern energy, environment, agriculture and rural development, according to a new paper published by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

“This industry has developed so quickly that governments at all levels, but particularly at the global level, have been slow to set rules on how to manage its growth,” said Sophia Murphy, IATP Senior Advisor and author of the paper. “It is critical that governments set global rules that support environmental sustainability and economic development for more than just a few companies.”

The paper, “The Multilateral Trade and Investment Context for Biofuels: Issues and Challenges,” outlines the different interests of the largest global players in the biofuel market, including the U.S., European Union and Brazil. The paper analyzes biofuel trade within the context of World Trade Organization rules governing agriculture, environmental goods, services, patents and investment. Biofuels raise a number of tricky trade questions, including: the acceptability of production and processing methods (PPMs) as a basis for discrimination among goods; the legitimacy of trade restrictive measures that support goals set in multilateral environmental agreements; and the effects of private standards on market access.

Current biofuel feedstocks are energy-intensive and involve largely industrial-scale monocultural production. In parts of the world, biofuel feedstock production is taking a heavy environmental toll on water, soil, and ecological biodiversity. Investment from foreign firms seeking biofuel feedstock is also aggravating land disputes and intensifying the political fight to protect food security. The paper discusses some of the issues on developing sustainability standards for biofuel production and calls for a multilateral discussion to set trade and investment rules that support a fair and sustainable biofuel sector.

“International guidelines could complement what will ultimately be local and national decisions,” said Murphy. “Such guidelines could carve out space for policies that are dictated by human rights and environmental norms, and could help to reshape trade and investment obligations to be more supportive of sustainable development.”

The paper can be read at: www.iatp.org.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems for all people. www.iatp.org. IIED is an independent, non-profit research institute working in the field of sustainable development at the local, national, regional and global level. www.iied.org.

Ben Lilliston

April 11, 2008

Patent Reform for Farmers

When genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced onto the market over a decade ago, the rules of the game changed for many farmers. Farmers who used biotechnology no longer owned their seeds. Instead, they leased the patented technology for one growing season from biotech giants like Monsanto. And they were forbidden from saving seeds for the next year, as farmers have since forever.

The emergence of GE crops signalled a major shift in the balance of power on the farm. When farmers bought GE crops, they also gave permission to biotech companies to visit their farm and test their fields to assess whether the company's proprietary technology was being used appropriately. Farmers who didn't grow GE crops, but whose crop became contaminated from neighboring farms, became vulnerable to patent litigation. In a highly celebrated case, Monsanto accused Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser of using its Roundup Ready technology, even though Schmeiser had never bought the seeds. You can read more about Percy's long-standing fight with Monsanto.

Seven years ago, IATP published a paper outlining the legal risks for farmers posed by GE crops. Since then, the Center for Food Safety published an important paper documenting over 100 Monsanto lawsuits against farmers for patent infringement.

This week, a coalition of farm groups from around the country, including IATP, sent a letter to Senate leaders in support of the Patent Reform Act of 2007 (S.1145). The bill would revise the standard for "willfulness" in the violation of patent law. This is particularly applicable to farmers who have had their crops contaminated with GE material from neighboring farms without their consent, but still found themselves in court. The bill would also restrict the ability of the plaintiff (biotech company) to select venues. By selecting far away venues, farmers have often had to travel a great distance from their farm to defend themselves in court. This has been used as yet another tactic to pressure farmers to settle these cases.

The record has been abysmal at the federal level in terms of protecting farmers' rights in relation to GE crops. Several states, including North and South Dakota and Indiana, have passed their own protections with regards to patent infringement. The Maine legislature just this week passed legislation that would prevent lawsuits for patent infringement against farmers whose farms have been contaminated with GE material from neighboring farms.

These steps at the state and federal level to protect farmers from GE crop patent litigation are long overdue. The next prudent step would be a system that holds biotech companies liable for economic damages, when their technology contaminates crops, and farmers lose out on organic or non-GE price premiums.

Ben Lilliston

April 09, 2008

The Emerging U.S. Water Crisis - Part Two

Barely three years ago in the wake of hurricane Katrina IATP’s Mark Muller wrote: “The storm exposed some real vulnerability in the current agriculture system. As we recover from the tragedy of Katrina, we have an opportunity to rebuild and rethink how to strengthen agriculture, regional economies and the transportation and production infrastructure. He identified 10 areas of vulnerability exposed by Katrina, including energy, fertilizer, transportation markets for crops less dependent on inputs, CAFO regulation, on-farm water storage, valuing the commons and climate change.”

I find these areas of vulnerability particularly relevant when it comes to the current water crisis. Like Katrina, this crisis gives us yet another opportunity to rethink and challenge issues that we need to raise: land use planning that allows unfettered development, energy production that is water intensive, and agricultural water use that is inefficient from a hydrological perspective. So far we have assumed that we can undertake any development we want, wherever we want, or we could grow whatever we want,
however we want, and that water will always be available to support that growth. In the process we are draining our aquifers, polluting our rivers, tampering with ecosystems and destroying the diversity of life—as if nature is ours to be manipulated to suit our wants. It is time to change some of our practices.

For more than a century, the federal government has spent billions of dollars, building our dams, reservoirs, aqueducts and pipelines. Ironically, in the same way that extracting/ transporting and processing water consumes large amounts of energy, the operation of power plants consume large amounts of water. Thermal energy is one of the largest water users in the United States. However, irrigated agriculture accounts for 80 percent of
water consumed in the U.S. This high percentage is partially because of low water use-efficiency (the portion of water actually used by irrigated agriculture relative to the volume of water withdrawn).

For the western United States, agricultural farms are the single largest water user, half of which is used by the largest 10 percent of the farms. High levels of irrigation subsidies, combined with archaic water laws make water use in the western U.S. highly wasteful and inefficient. But there is room for improvement in agricultural water use in almost all parts of the U.S.

Water use should be such that for a given locale, appropriate incentives are put in place to ensure that water withdrawals do not exceed the recharge rate; that water conservation techniques (such as rain water harvesting) are central to land use planning; that improved irrigation efficiency and better nutrient management (to reduce non-point water pollution from farm run-offs) are rewarded; and that growing water-intensive crops in water scarce regions discouraged.

Legal judgments, such the recent case involving the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, are an attempt to reverse earlier actions by state and federal water managers that have damaged the water system. But much more is needed.

As Peter Gleick of the California based Pacific Institute points out in a recent article: “While predictions of economic disaster arising from the Delta decision may come true, they don't have to. But it will take a re-evaluation of our ideas about water-use and political courage by the governor, Legislature and water users to have open and honest discussions about how to redesign our water
system so that it is smart, efficient and sustainable.”

This is true for the nation as a whole: here in this land of plenty, we need to rethink our policies regarding urban development, energy production, and most importantly our agriculture and food systems, in order to avert an environmental crisis that many countries are already in the grip of.

Shiney Varghese

April 07, 2008

The Emerging U.S. Water Crisis - Part One

I am amazed: since last summer, almost every day we see at least one news story on another water crisis in the U.S. The water crisis is no longer something that we know about as affecting developing countries or their poor in particular. It is right here in our own backyard. Today, in many parts of the U.S. we are nearing the limits of our water supplies. And that is getting our attention.

The writing has been on the wall for some time. The private sector has been showing much interest in water as a source of profit, and water privatization has been an issue in many parts of the country. The failure in public water systems has indeed been a contributing factor for this interest. In many cities, consumers have been organizing and opposing the privatization of water utilities, because they have been concerned about affordability or deterioration in the quality of service. Environmental organizations and
consumer activists
have also been concerned about the socio-economic, health and environmental implications of ever increasing bottled water use.

But for most of us living in the U.S., water is something we take for granted, available when you turn your tap on–—to brush your teeth, to take a shower, to wash your car, to water your lawn, and if you have your own swimming pool then, to fill that as well.

So it was with alarm that many of us read the story of Orme, a small town tucked away in the mountains of southern Tennessee that has become a recent symbol of the drought in the southeast. Orme has had to literally ration its water use, by collecting water for a few hours every day–—an everyday experience in most developing countries, but unusual for the U.S.

This is an extreme experience from the southeast region that has been under a year long dry spell. In fact, the region’s dry spell resulted in the city of Atlanta setting severe water use restrictions and three states, Georgia, Florida and Alabama, going to court over a water allocation dispute (settled in favor of Florida and Alabama early this month).

Early this year we also heard that drought in the region could force nuclear reactor shutdowns. Nuclear reactors need billions of gallons of cooling water daily to operate, and in many of the lakes and rivers water levels are getting close to the limit set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It is possible in the coming months that we may see water levels decrease below the intake pipes, or that shallow water could become warmer and unusable as a coolant. While this may not cause blackouts, this can result in increased costs for energy as utilities have to buy from other sources.

Water concerns are not restricted to the southeast region—similar issues have also been popping up in other parts of the United States. In the Midwest, concerns abound as to whether the newly emerging biofuel industry is putting undue pressure on the region’s groundwater resources. The issue came into focus for the first time in the late summer of 2006 in Granite Falls, MN where an ethanol plant in its first year of operation depleted the groundwater so much that it had to begin pumping water from the Minnesota River.

In early February, it was reported that there is a 50 percent chance Lake Mead (on the Arizona/Nevada border), will be dry by 2021 if climate change continues as expected and future water use is not limited. Along with Lake Powell in Utah, Lake Mead helps provide water for more than 25 million people, and is a key source of water in the southwestern U.S. On the west coast, where water is a precious resource, water disputes abound: between farmers who want water for agriculture, environmentalists who want to conserve water for ecosystems, and cities who want to meet ever-growing urban water needs.

Last summer, in a landmark decision, a federal judge ordered state and federal water project managers to reduce the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect the threatened delta smelt from extinction. Along with excessive rains in other regions and increased incidence of hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, these changes are a constant reminder of an increasingly evident reality: climate change.

In fact, in early February, Nature reported that, “In the western US, where water is perhaps the most precious natural resource, anthropogenic global warming is responsible for more than half of the well-documented changes to the hydrological cycle from 1950 to 1999. . .Over the last half of the twentieth century, the region's mountains received less winter snow and more rain, with snow melting earlier, causing rivers to flow more strongly in the spring and more weakly in the summer.”

Unlike Katrina’s images that are as haunting as that of a severe sub Saharan drought, the images of the current North American drought are no more than a mild distraction for most Americans (though not for those who live in Orne). Yet there is no reason to be complacent. We are close to the limits of our water supplies. It is time for us to start thinking of this nation’s susceptibility to these changes and disruptions and how to minimize our vulnerability to them.

In part two, I'll look more at the U.S. water crisis and agriculture.

Shiney Varghese

April 04, 2008

In Istanbul on World Water Day

Istanbul is a beautiful city. It straddles the continents of Asia and Europe, and lies on the banks of the strategic Bosphorus Strait that connects the Marmara and Dead Sea. For water activists, Istanbul is an especially important place because it will host the 5th World Water Forum (WWF) one year from now.

Many Turkish water justice activists have come together to organize a parallel alternative water forum next year. This alterative water forum will challenge the corporate and International Financial Institution (IFI)-led agenda of the WWF, and talk about alternatives that will help address the global water crisis. You can find background on the emerging water crisis, both in the U.S. and around the world, at our water web page.

As people around the world celebrated World Water Day on March 22nd, I had the privilege to be part of a delegation of international water justice advocates which held a preparatory meeting in Istanbul to plan for the alternative water forum.

The first event was a conference, "Water Under the Yoke of Capitalism,” organized by a network of 50 Turkish organizations in collaboration with 17 other groups from around the world. It was well attended by representatives of diverse sectors, including: water worker unions, consumer groups, academics and public health and environmental organizations.

The program was well organized, with high quality and in-depth presentations on a broad range of issues. It paid attention to the many ways in which water is central to our lives, our economy and how water mismanagement impacts health, agriculture, industry, mining and energy.

As far as the Turkish water situation goes, every presenter, irrespective of their professional background -- engineering, hydro-electric energy, health, mining, dams or agriculture -- stressed sustainability and criticized neo-liberalization. They were in agreement about the threats of privatization, the misuse of water resources, the damage caused by international finance and domestic policies that promote unsustainable development, and the need for alternatives.

Farm groups were also very active at the meeting. While irrigated agriculture accounts for 70 percent of world water use, it produces 40 percent of the world’s food crops. Rain-fed agriculture meets 60 percent of food production, but is under threat from climate change. The conference ended with a call from farmers' groups to include rural water concerns in the upcoming alternate water forum.

The conference was followed by a strategy meeting that issued the Istanbul Solidarity Statement on March 24, 2008. I'll continue to report throughout the year on plans for next year's World Water Forum in Istanbul.

Shiney Varghese